The NBA needs more black owners. Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson have proven it’s time that the demographics of the league’s ownership more closely resemble those of its player and fan base. 75% of NBA players are black, as is 45% of the league’s television audience. Of the league’s 49 majority owners (spread across 30 teams), however, Michael Jordan is the only African-American.
Despite societal push for owners to be held more accountable for their sentiments and actions, skyrocketing valuation of teams is making it difficult for anyone but the world’s wealthiest to actually assume control of a team. Sterling made an immense profit from his wife's record-breaking $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, and Levenson is eager to cash in on his sale of the Atlanta Hawks under unfortunately similar circumstances. In announcing his departure from the Hawks, Levenson admitted he had written an e-mail accusing the team's fan base of being "too black," amongst other racially insensitive remarks. Because Levenson reported the e-mail before it could be published by anyone else, he has received relatively little backlash for his words compared to Donald Sterling.
The controversy surrounding Levenson is smaller than it was with Sterling, but the profit will also be smaller. In January, Forbes estimated the value of the Hawks at $425 million, the third-lowest in the league. The team could feasibly sell for much more, especially considering the Milwaukee Bucks surpassed Forbes’ estimated valuation of $405 million when it sold for $550 million earlier this year. Both Milwaukee and Atlanta are smaller markets than Los Angeles or New York, but Dallas Mavericks majority owner Mark Cuban still referred to the Bucks’ sale price as “a bargain,” suggesting all NBA franchises are truly worth at least $1 billion.
Just this year, Jordan’s estimated net worth reached that $1 billion benchmark, a feat he accomplished by increasing his majority stake in the Bobcats from 80% to 89.5%. That makes Jordan one of only nine black billionaires worldwide, out of 1,645 in total. The only other African-American on that list is Oprah Winfrey. To purchase the Los Angeles Clippers, Oprah would’ve had to spend nearly all of her estimated $2.7 billion net worth.
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Even with a sale price of $425 million, however, it is statistically improbable that an African-American will become the new majority owner of the Atlanta Hawks. At 76%, the overwhelming majority of American millionaires are white, while only 8% are black. To be fair, the NBA does have two other owners with different ethnic backgrounds, although Indian Sacremento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive’s net worth is estimated at $700 million and Russian Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has an astonishing estimated net worth of $13 billion. Taking race out of the equation, there is a select group of individuals that could even afford the purchase of any NBA team. What Bill Simmons accurately referred to as “The World’s Most Exclusive Club” in a Grantland article earlier this year is only expected to become more exclusive as the years go on.
To say that the NBA needs more black owners, then, is to say that that the country or the world needs more black millionaires and billionaires. It’s not impossible, but given the direction and rate at which things are headed, it’s far too improbable. A complex national history of race relations and wealth inequality has led us to this point, where the public is not fairly represented by those in power.
The best we can hope for, then, is that those who are fortunate enough to purchase an NBA team remain in-touch with the racial and economic diversity of their fan base. If the world’s wealthiest must be the ones in control of the league’s franchises, they need to ensure that all players, coaches, staff members and fans are at least treated as equals.